My friend D visits us each men's fashion week from Athens, where he has an excellent high fashion boutique in the Kolonaki area. (Just a stone's throw from the riots, in fact. His shop has so far been spared any looting, possibly by dint of its not having any windows.) After his visit this past January, we got to talking about Greek wine, and he kindly insisted on bringing over some bottles of my choosing in June.
The problem is, I know almost zilch about Greek wine. The only place besides Greece, to my knowledge, where one can taste it in educational quantities is, of course, New York. I wound up just emailing D some PDF wine lists of reputable NYC places and telling him I remembered reading nice things about Assyrtiko.*
D, in typical fashion, showed up with a generous sack of interesting bottles, most of which we cracked open after showrooms one night over a B.Y.O.B. dinner at 9ème Chinese gem Q-Tea,** thereby creating another incidental politically-odd pairing.
In a perfect world I would have cooked up a nice Greek feast to accompany these wines, but the time isn't there during fashion week. And in any case I was jonesing to return to Q-Tea, which had in fact been closed for over a month until that evening. (I later found out it was for a very good reason.)
Of the four bottles we tasted (drank) together, three were made from the Assyrtiko grape, which I understand reaches its most profound expression on the volcanic island of Santorini, where the average age of the mostly ungrafted vines is around 70 years. I also am given to understand that Assyrtiko tastes best with a few years age, after the grape's innate intensity has had time to settle and broaden. Too bad for us: we were on limited time, and the bottles we tasted of this grape were all very young, either 2009 or 2010.
Instinctively, however, I don't think we missed too much. Even in the small sample range, a drastic contrast in quality was apparent between the bottles, and the two that showed well were acceptably delicious right now, whereas the two that showed poorly had, quite plainly, no future in front of them.
Across the three stylistically-different Assyrtiko samples, grape typicity was nevertheless quite pronounced. I don't think there's any mistaking Assyrtiko for another grape, even after such a slim experience as this one. (Not my first time tasting the grape, but certainly my second or third.) The general profile is coastal, thickly mineral, saline, tending to high-ish alcohol, with a definite pungency that seems related to light surmaturité. (The grape retains acid famously, crucial for production in searing hot places like Santorini.) There is an herbaceous quality that would not be out of place on the Campanian coast of Italy. But where a number of other writers have detected notes of fresh vegetables, lentils in particular, I got something else entirely: Mountain Dew.
It sounds like a fanciful reference, so I wouldn't mention it if it weren't gapingly apparent to my own olfactory / gustatory hardware that Assyrtiko tastes and to a lesser extent smells like a caffeinated piss-yellow hick beverage. In a good way, though that may stretch the imagination.
The wines, and some scene-setting pics of chef Ye's (sp?) excellent cuisine, which was by no means a bad match, in the end, for said wines' wiry exotic lushness:
2010 Sigalas Assyrtiko "Santorini"
A steel-fermented Assyrtiko, seemingly somewhat redundantly named*** for the island on which it is grown, which is also the name of the OPAP covering wines from Santorini and Thirasia. (OPAP: Onomasía Proléfseos Anotéras Piótitos, a rough equivalent to French AOC or Italian DOC, only we can probably presume the appellation guidelines are followed somewhat less rigorously than in even the latter system.)
At 14.2%, it was ripe, but the alcohol was well-integrated. A pleasant herbal / camphorous / rosemary nose. It was very slightly off-dry, which caused consternation among some non-geek friends gathered there. For me the acid and minerality balanced the then-surprising Mountain Dew sweetness very adequately.
2009 Gaia Assyrtiko "Wild Ferment"
I'm curious about the historical factors that cause the wine culture of a nation like Greece, with an inarguably long preindustrial winemaking history, to behave in the present-day commercial wine market very much like faceless venture-capitalist New World regions. Spain is another example. Anyway Gaia is a cheery commercial endeavor founded in 1994 by two internationally trained agriculturalist / oenologists.
Their "Wild Ferment" bottling, introduced relatively recently in their range, appears to be this company's idea of natural winemaking. They've used indigenous yeasts, they proudly inform us, and have not artificially started or stopped fermentation. Commendable steps, I guess, but when we consider that using indigenous yeasts is the natural winemaking equivalent of, like, re-using plastic bags from the supermarket, it begins to seem somewhat cynical that Gaia have themed a whole marketing effort for this Assyrtiko around these salutary, but by no means revolutionary or "wild," techniques.
Oh, and the wine is a miserable woody mess. Belying the hat-tip to traditional methods, the folks at Gaia ferment this one in new 225l French oak barrels, with the result that wood aromas and wood flavors completely efface the grape's natural delicacy.
2010 Gaia Assyrtiko "Thallasitis"
I suppose it's a good thing that only when we were halfway through the bottle did I realize that Gaia are responsible for the "Thallasitis" also. My disdain for the last bottle might have colored my appreciation for this one, which was in fact my favorite of the bunch.
The bottle design couldn't be more different; where the "Wild Ferment" label actively recalls Michel Rolland's blockbuster Chilean red "Clos de Los Siete," that of the "Thallasitis" is wordy, discursive, and written entirely in Greek. D was kind enough to translate for me on the back of an envelope. The wine derives from low-yield vines over 80 years old, and is, thankfully, steel-fermented.
It was with this bottle that I finally put my finger on the Mountain Dew factor. It shared many flavor characteristics with the '10 Sigalas "Santorini," but everything was several shades lighter, leaner, and more refined, with more pronounced notes of mineral and wintergreen.
2009 Lyrarakis Dafni
Lastly we opened a Dafni, from Crete. I'd never heard of this varietal before, and naturally I knew nothing of the winery, who I read now are a family operation begun in 1966. D said he'd read somewhere that Dafni was only barely saved from extinction, and that it was known for aromas of laurel. Sadly, this will remain a mystery, as this bottle had succumbed to either the stresses of the flight over, or to the mere fact of being a two-year-old Mediterranean coastal white: it was oxidized.
Unfortunately this last minor disappointment was all we had left to toast with, when at the close of the meal our friends at Q-Tea Dan and Ye (sp? sp?) told us the reason the restaurant had been closed for a month and a half. They'd taken time off to go get married in China, and had visited both families before returning to their funny purple restaurant on rue Notre Dame de Lorette. With the bad Dafni we toasted to them, and to D for bringing the wines, and it was fine, because these newlyweds don't ordinarily drink, and D and the rest of us had by then drunk quite enough.
* It's true you can find a token bottle of Assyrtiko at many wine shops, even in Paris. I never trust token bottles, though. To what can one compare them?
** Which pokey wonderful restaurant, I note, has been experiencing some backlash as of late. I just shake my head. To not love an inexpensive B.Y.O.B. Chinese place with numerous menu stand-outs run by nice folks in Paris is, quite probably, just to not love wine. Fine for some, I guess.
*** Possibly it's just a punctuation error, deriving from the misguided enthusiasm some non-native English speakers have for quotation marks. "'Best' Mobile Rates To Cambodia!" etc.
19, rue Notre Dame de Lorette
Metro: Saint Georges
Tel: 01 55 32 04 68
Falling in love with Q-Tea
Another politically odd pairing: Drappier's "Charles de Gaulle" Champagne & Lebanese Food
A 2008 Eric Asimov piece on Greek wines @ NYTimes
A 2009 Eric Asimov blog post involving Greek wines @ NYTimes
A more comprehensive 2010 Assyrtiko round-up in which the author tastes many of the wines I mention above, but with the strange caveat that all the bottles have been open for three days, @ BrooklynGuy
An account of a 2010 Santorini wine tasting @ BrooklynGuy
A 2008 post on the wines of Santonini @ PeterLiem